Evangelicalism: Dispensing religious goods and services?


I have a short blog piece/article on the Fuller Seminary blog, about a new D.Min course they have asked me to teach.  Text is also below, FYI.

Thomas Taylor (1738–1816) was appointed by John Wesley in 1761 (and is one of the few people who had an itinerant career longer than Wesley), travelling extensively over several decades, throughout Wales, Scotland, and England. He was able to observe evangelical faith in relation to a myriad of engagements, physical, cultural, political, psychological, ecclesial, within the emerging middles classes and the birth of market society. In all those engagements with faith, Taylor observed that ‘evangelical religion spread best where trade was growing’.

Taylor was able to observe not only the beginnings of the evangelical tradition, but also its nascent relationship to the rise and development of the market society. He was also well placed to discern the possibilities and captivities of that relationship in its intrinsic nature.

More recently, John Milbank has diagnosed the current relationship of evangelicalism to the market as being ‘quite simply a new mutation of Protestantism in its mutually constitutive relationship with capitalism’. Or, perhaps more crudely, we might combine and paraphrase Thomas Taylor and John Milbank using the words of Dan Kimball that the modern Protestant evangelical church has all too often become about the ‘dispensing of religious goods and services’ to Christian consumers.

For Milbank and others (like William Connolly) Evangelical Protestantism is seemingly an apostate child of Christianity born from the muddy loins of capitalism, and is so inherently tainted that it needs to be abandoned as the mulling babe that it is. Is this really the relationship of evangelicalism to capitalism?

Further study is need on whether Evangelicalism might be both symbiotic to capitalism and modern markets and at the same time a counter movement to them. Evangelicalism is rather like unions, simultaneously drawing on prior forms of social solidarity (guilds etc) as historical antecedents, whilst also being a modern form of social solidarity born out of the modern contexts of industrialization. Unions are a creature of capitalism (ala Marx) and at the same time a way of responding to the problems of capitalism. Where is the similar counter movement and modern movement within Evangelicalism?

So whilst some may see Evangelicalism as intrinsic to capitalism, it can be better understood as something more nuanced and complex. And if we can understand how Evangelicalism is both a creature of capitalism and a way of responding to it we may then begin to ask if Evangelicalism can be more robust within its institutional habitations of capitalism. In other words, what kind of Church and ecclesiology is able to respond the challenges of our emerging market society, and at the same time not become captive to its logic and identity formation? If there has been a false dichotomy that allies the evangelical church as intrinsic to capitalism, can we be more nuanced and re-imagine theologically an evangelicalism that is more robust within its organizational habitation of capitalism? What kind of Church is able to respond to the changes in market society and lead to the formation of Christian identity with others?

You can read more about the ‘Gospel in a Market-shaped Church’ course here.